By Alex Barutha, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
As we approach the All-Star break, it seems like a good time to look back on the season and touch on some of the most significant fantasy storylines, which often mirror the NBA’s most interesting storylines. Trades and injuries, of course, are responsible for a large portion of the biggest news, the latter of which were something the new, expanded schedule was ironically supposed to fix. Let’s jump in:
The Young Celtics
Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum — as a result of the Gordon Hayward injury — have looked more than comfortable in roles they weren’t expected to have. Rozier collected a triple-double in his first career start and has managed to be the 97th-ranked fantasy player over the past month. Brown went from playing 17.2 minutes per game as a rookie to 31.5 this season and has responded by averaging 14.2 points and 5.4 rebounds.
Tatum is posting nearly identical numbers to Brown’s but is shooting an absurd 44.0 percent from beyond the arc on 3.1 attempts per game, all while ranking as the 67th-best fantasy player this season. We’re too far along in the season to chalk any of this up to a hot streak. So, the real question may come along next season: whose minutes get cut when Hayward returns?
Spencer Dinwiddie Out of Nowhere
There was a legitimate discussion before the season about which of Spencer Dinwiddie, Sean Kilpatrick, and Isaiah Whitehead would see the most run behind Jeremy Lin and D’Angelo Russell. The future was a bit clouded in Brooklyn at the time, as Dinwiddie, Kilpatrick and Whitehead all averaged between 22.5 and 25.1 minutes per game during the 2016-17 campaign. Well, Whitehead and Kilpatrick have ended up as casualties in Brooklyn’s process, while Dinwiddie — due in large part to Lin losing the season to injury — has molded himself into a top-90 fantasy player for the season.
The Jimmy Butler Haul is Panning Out (And Fast)
To review: The Timberwolves gave up Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine and the pick that became Lauri Markkanen to get Butler and a mid-first-round pick (Justin Patton). Dunn was one of the most divisive figures in fantasy coming into the season, with some ready to pawn him off in dynasty leagues as a result of a highly underwhelming rookie campaign, in which he shot below 40 percent from the field and 30 percent from three. Despite that, coach Fred Hoiberg felt comfortable throwing Dunn into the fire. It’s panned out nicely, as Dunn is the 45th-ranked fantasy player on the season, averaging 13.7 points, 6.4 assists, 4.6 rebounds and a combined 2.6 steals/blocks per game.
Markkanen was ready. He came out of the gates fast and never looked back, becoming the 72nd-ranked fantasy player on the season, outperforming even the most favorable projections. The main highlight is Markkanen’s three-point shooting, as he drills 2.3 per game at a 36.5 percent clip.
LaVine continues to work his way back from an ACL tear, but is unsurprisingly looking like he’ll be a huge part of the Bulls’ future. He’s seen his usage jump from 21.7 to 30.4 percent over last season and is posting 23.5 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.5 steals per 36 minutes since returning.
Andre Drummond Raising His Game
Though it took John Wall getting hurt to get Drummond into the All-Star Game, he deserves it for how much he improved over the summer. Drummond increased his free-throw percentage by 23.7 percentage points (!), and it now sits at a very palatable 61.3 percent. He also developed his skills as a passer, bringing his assists from 1.1 to 3.8 per game, while continuing to be a beast on the boards (15.4) and on defense (3.1 combined steals/blocks). Those numbers have led him to become the 18th-ranked fantasy player this season. Who saw that coming? Oh, yeah, Blake Griffin is his teammate now, too.
The Warriors Don’t Deserve Jordan Bell
The Bulls, now infamously, sold the pick that became Jordan Bell to the Warriors for cash. Prior to Bell suffering a severely sprained ankle in mid-January, he was averaging 7.6 points, 6.1 rebounds, 3.3 assists and a combined 2.9 steals/blocks when seeing at least 16 minutes. It doesn’t feel right that he’s on the Warriors, but did you expect anything different?
Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis Shine
“Robbed” was the word used to describe what happened to the Pacers when they traded Paul George to the Thunder for Oladipo and Sabonis. Both players have done everything in their power to prove that notion wrong ever since. Oladipo, the ninth-ranked fantasy player this season, made his first All-Star team, averaging 24.0 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.1 assists and a combined 2.7 steals/blocks per game while shooting 48.7 percent from the field and 39.0 percent from three.
Meanwhile, Sabonis has made big strides in a more natural post-up role with Indiana, becoming the 116th-ranked fantasy player this season on the back of 12.5 points, 8.2 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game as the Pacers’ sixth man.
Lou Williams Having a Career Year
It was fair to assume Williams would have a good year with the Clippers. He would seemingly walk into his typical sixth-man role, propping up the team’s second unit. And that’s exactly what happened until injuries started piling up. It felt like the more players who got hurt for L.A., the more Lou Williams caught fire. The result has been an unforeseen 30-day stretch, during which Williams has been the 12th-ranked fantasy player by way of 26.9 points, 6.4 assists, 3.0 threes and 1.9 steals per game. There was even an absurd stretch of 13 games when he was averaging 31.2 points and 5.4 assists, punctuated by a 50-point performance in a win over Golden State.
Lonzo Ball’s Rollercoaster Start and the Steal of the Draft
Lonzo Ball took a lot of heat at the beginning of the season for hitting just 25.8 percent of his threes and 32.7 percent of his field goals through the first 26 games of the season. What got much less coverage was that he’s upped those numbers to 38.0 percent and 42.1 percent, respectively, since then. That’s much to the relief of fantasy owners who took a chance on the rookie, who’s managed to become the 62nd-ranked fantasy player on the season. While the shooting is still an issue, Ball’s all-around numbers clearly translated from UCLA, as he’s averaging 7.8 rebounds, 7.2 assists and a combined 2.6 blocks/steals over his past 10 appearances.
On the other hand, Kyle Kuzma came in without much expectation but jumped out to a hot start, averaging 18.3 points and 6.9 rebounds in 33.1 minutes through his first 32 games. He’s cooled off since then, however, as coach Luke Walton has been looking to monitor his minutes following a quad injury in December. That’s resulted in Kuzma sitting as the 124th ranked player on the season — quite the drop off from the beginning of the year.
Tyreke Evans’ Career Revival
Memphis was once again hit with a rash of injuries early in the season, resulting in Evans essentially taking over as the top ball-handler. In the process, he’s played so well that the Grizzlies will probably flip him for a first-round draft pick after signing him on what was essentially a minimum deal. He’s the 43rd-ranked fantasy player on the year, averaging 19.5 points, 5.0 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 2.1 threes and 1.0 steals per game.
DeMarcus Cousins Goes Down
Cousins was having a career year before suffering a torn Achilles, propelling many fantasy teams to the top of their leagues by being the sixth-ranked player on the season, despite going in the second rounds of many drafts. Those teams are now left scrambling to the waiver wire for talent and may need to make a big move to stay in the race.
If there’s a silver lining, it’s that Cousins’ injury paved the way for Mirotic to find his way to New Orleans. He’s having a surprising year himself, coming in as the 54t-best fantasy player by averaging 16.4 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.7 threes in just over 25 minutes per game. He’s already seen that workload rise dramatically since arriving in New Orleans and could be even more valuable down the stretch.
Melo Takes the Biggest Hit in OKC
Russell Westbrook and Paul George each had their fair share of struggles adjusting to the new situation on the Thunder, but have both bounced back since. Unsurprisingly, it’s been Carmelo Anthony taking the biggest hit, as his scoring has dropped from 22.4 points per game last season to 17.3 points per game on 3.2 fewer shots, though he’s taking about the same number of threes. That’s resulted in Anthony being the 90th-ranked fantasy player on the season, oddly making him a fringe fantasy commodity in some shallow leagues.
The Process Yielding Mixed (But Mostly Positive) Results
Who knows if Markelle Fultz will play significant minutes again this season following what has been one of the oddest rookie campaigns from a top draft pick — or any draft pick, for that matter — in NBA history. In the meantime, Ben Simmons has looked like an NBA veteran on many nights, averaging 16.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, 7.2 assists, and a combined 2.7 steals/blocks en route to becoming the 29th-ranked fantasy player on the season, as well as a strong candidate for Rookie of the Year. Meanwhile, in a big moment for him and the franchise, Joel Embiid is off of both minutes and back-to-back restrictions and is the 15th-ranked fantasy player on the season.
Paging Jusuf Nurkic
Nurkic was a hot commodity in most fantasy drafts, often being snatched up in the second or third rounds. Upon being traded to Portland last season, he flashed high upside as a center (15 points, 10 boards with some assists and blocks thrown in) and even posted a plus-11.1 net rating. This year, his net rating has dropped to minus-1.3, often prompting Ed Davis (plus-5.7) to see minutes over him. Overall, Nurkic is just the 100th-ranked fantasy player in what was supposed to be a breakout year.
The Unrecognizable Spurs
With Kawhi Leonard continuing to battle a nagging quad injury, the Spurs are starting to seem unrecognizable. Kyle Anderson has been getting the bulk of Leonard’s minutes, becoming the 83rd-ranked fantasy player on the season with some of the most unremarkable stats you’ve ever seen. At the same time, Tony Parker has been replaced by Dejounte Murray as the team’s starting point guard. Murray has been a fantasy darling since he showed promise as a defender, rebounder and passer last season. That’s come to fruition now, as he’s the 73rd-ranked fantasy player over the past two weeks, while posting averages of 10.0 points, 8.9 rebounds, 4.7 assists and a combined 1.5 blocks/steals per game. Through all the chaos, LaMarcus Aldridge has been the one constant and is having his best year since leaving Portland.
Donovan Mitchell Keeping Utah Afloat
Through the inconsistency that has been Ricky Rubio and Rodney Hood, as well as injuries to Rudy Gobert, Mitchell has shone through as arguably the best fantasy sleeper, and he’ll be Simmons’ biggest challenger for Rookie of the Year. Mitchell was expected to have to fight for playing time among Utah’s other backcourt options, but he’s ultimately outplayed them all (by a large margin) and kept the Jazz on the fringes of the playoff race.
On the year, Mitchell is averaging 19.3 points, 3.5 assists, 3.3 rebounds, 2.3 threes and a combined 1.9 steals/blocks per game. That’s top-45 value from the 13th pick in the draft.